Stories of the Zillertal tradition
200 years of “Silent night”
Without the right performer, not even the best of songs would ever become a hit! Would “Silent night” have become the most famous Christmas carol in the world without the singers from Zillertal? Probably not!
A Christmas miracle. It even works in summer: Whenever people hear “Silent night”, they begin to smile and to breathe more calmly – overcome by a pleasant feeling of warmth and well-being. It’s Christmas. This melody is the traditional sound of Christmas Eve. Rosi Kraft thinks that “Silent night should only be sung on December 24 or 25”. However: One can experience this carol and the events which have grown up around it practically all the year round in Zillertal. But of course we don’t want to contradict Rosi – after all, she is a real expert on this topic. Over 20 years ago Rosi was struck by “Silent night” fever, “a fate shared by many of us here in Zillertal”.
And there is a good reason for this: It was the peddlers and family singers from Zillertal who carried the song out into the world and made it famous. “It’s something we can be a little bit proud of ”, says Rosi. She is the owner of the Strasser Häusl, which was once the home of these very singers – the Strasser family. Rosi has painstakingly transformed the simple farmhouse into a museum and now educates visitors on the subject of “Silent night”. Nobody in Zillertal disputes the fact that the text and music for this Christmas carol were composed in Oberndorf near Salzburg, but from this point on, the Tyroleans were clearly responsible for its success.
And this is how it happened: Karl Mauracher, an organ builder from Fügen in Zillertal, heard the song while carrying out repairs to the organ of the Church of St Nicholas in Oberndorf and, according to some oral sources, brought it home to Zillertal in 1819. Three years later, Emperor Francis I of Austria and Czar Alexander of Russia visited Fügen Castle at the invitation of Count Dönhoff, where they were entertained by the Rainer family singers performing “Silent night”. During the following years, the Rainer family travelled to Germany, Sweden and England where their singing was enthusiastically received. The Strasser family from Laimbach were further musical ambassadors: “In 1831, they were selling their wares at the Christmas market in Leipzig. They soon realised that their gloves sold better when they sang”, explains Rosi Kraft. One of the songs in their repertoire was this same “Silent night”.
The audience was so touched that the family was invited back to Leipzig two years later – just to sing. Rosi Kraft has learned from her research in the local archives that “August Robert Friese, a publisher from Dresden, first printed the music under the title ‘Tyrolean Song’”. The second generation of the Rainer family singers spent several years in the USA after 1839 and, in 1851, the first English version of “Silent night! Hallow’d Night!” finally appeared.
The newly-founded Rainer Association, which included up to 15 singers, then began a grand tour which took them to almost all the ruling houses of Europe. “Hence, for a long time, people believed that the song had its origins in Zillertal”. Today, it is known that, although it was not written here, the carol would certainly not have become world famous without Zillertal!
Image: Salzburger Land Tourismus and Text: Andrea Burchhart
Zillertal magazine Winter 2018/19
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